Founded by George Washington, a black man whose diverse skills and sheer determination made him one of the Pacific Northwest’s most successful pioneers. Born in Virginia on 15 August 1817, Washington was the off spring of an English mother and an enslaved African father. After Washington’s birth, his father was sold deeper into slavery and his mother was taken in by the James Cochrane family, a Caucasian couple, who later adopted the child.
Washington traveled with his adoptive parents through the Ohio and Missouri territories finally setting out on his own in 1841. At the age of twenty-four he rented a small sawmill in St. Joseph Missouri, and later sold some of his holdings to Jeremiah Coyle, a white man. Coyle refused to pay for the property on the grounds that Washington, a free black man, had no rights in the State of Missouri.
Washington was later forced to leave the state of Illinois because he could not afford to pay the “behavioral tax” of $6000 to guarantee his appropriate conduct while residing there. Discouraged and angered by these conditions, Washington sought “to find a place in the world, if there was any, where a Negro would be treated like a man.” In 1853 Washington purchased 640 acres of prime land at the fork of the Skookumchuck and Chehalis Rivers in Washington Territory. Soon after at the age of fifty, he married his first wife Mary Cornie, a woman of “Negro and Jewish parents” and together they homesteaded the property.
It was twenty years later, 8 January 1875, when Washington appeared before the territorial auditor to file his claim to establish a new town called Centerville. By 1889 the town’s population had grown to nearly 1000 residents and Washington had sold 2000 lots for as little as $10.00 each.
Centerville later became the modern town of Centralia, but not without some difficult times. In 1893 the town was hit hard by the closing of the iron works and local lumber mills. Washington single-handedly saved the city from bankruptcy and starvation by traveling to Portland by wagon to purchase food for the local citizens and making “interest free” loans to residents of the community. He remained a wealthy and respected icon of the state until his death at the age of 88 in 1905.
Bush Prairie, which later became the town of Tumwater, was settled by George Washington Bush, a former fur trader with the Hudson Bay Company. Washington headed to the Northwest seeking a place free of prejudice in which he and his Caucasian wife could raise their children.
Born the child of enslaved parents, Bush received his freedom and a significant share of financial holdings upon the death of his former owner, a ship magnate named Stevenson. Bush became the wealthiest man of his time to migrate to Oregon and the first African American to arrive by wagon train.
Although Oregon had passed legislation forbidding slavery, it created an amendment which systematically regulated the presence of “free Negroes.” Males were allowed to reside up to two years and females up to three without penalty. The consequence for remaining beyond this period was 20 to 30 lashes for every six months the person delayed.
For obvious reasons Bush and his family pressed on, finally settling in the Puget Sound area of Washington in 1845. It was here that he and his wife homesteaded the 640 acre parcel that later became Bush Prairie. They had a cooperative relationship with the Native Americans of the region and successfully raised wheat, corn, potatoes and squash. The Bush home also served as a wayside station for travelers headed to the Northwest.